Skiing in the Alborz Mountains

The artificial twinkling of the cut glass of the Shah’s palace, however dazzling, was a mere foretaste for the majesty of the sun-drenched white-capped peaks of the Alborz Mountains. Rising up to the north of the capital Tehran, the high powder glistened with a bright white flashing beauty. I thought of when the man dreams he is flying towards The Snows of Kilimanjaro in Hemingway’s short story. My tiredness slipped away from me and I flew down as fast as I have ever gone, feeling close to the mountain.

We had taken the second high lift that had only just opened after a few days’ closure; revealing the untouched powdery snow, only the thinnest of icy membranes on its surface, whipped up by the wind. Unexpectedly the front edge of my snowboard dug in to what must have been a mogul under the surface, and I was flipped straight up and forward (I instinctively tucked my head down), bounced off my back – my momentum carrying my legs above me in an arc – whence I landed neatly in an upright position and continued downwards amidst a great scattering of lumps, flakes and crystals.

I could hear my friends whooping high above at my good fortune and, adrenaline really going now, I rolled from toe to heel in long lines to carve through the spray as a surfer picks his line through the best contours of a perfectly glassy wave. We joked about it afterwards down in the canteen below as we blew on the tops of our too-hot cups of coffee. As we bought these we gestured to the waiter to write down the price as we spoke no Farsi. He obligingly did so, but in Farsi, at which the place erupted in a volcano derision and laughter. He went the colour of beetroot but laughed it off eventually.

The palace of the Last Shah of Iran

My first reaction to the ham-fisted, thickly applied veneer of opulence of the last of the Shahs, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s palace was; ‘I bet this it what it feels like to shoot craps at the Monte Carlo casino in Baku’. The palace grounds are in the very north of Tehran, where the pollution isn’t so bad and the mountains peak through the winter trees. All that remains of the many toppled monuments of the Shah here are two giant bronze boots, sticking out of the ground near the long concrete steps leading up to the ugly modern building.

Gaudy French Rococo furniture, much of it mahogany, preens upon exquisite hand-stitched Persian rugs. The jarring contrast between East and West makes everything feel out of place beneath the outrageous cut glass chandeliers. There are priceless ill-fitting pieces of furniture from all over the world; gifts from Foreign Secretaries, oilmen, importers – anyone who wanted something. Frescos of ancient Persian heroes adorn high circular ceilings with tigers and bows and arrows. There is a lot of marble. The effect is hotchpotch, wasteful, opulent, grotesque. I liked it.

Celebrated war correspondent Robert Fisk recalls an anecdote when he went to dinner with a celebrated society lady in Tehran who was rumoured to be one of the Shah’s last mistresses. Whenever the Shah wished to make love to a woman she would be admitted via a side door of the palace to spend a few hours in one of the more discreet salons, and upon leaving she would be presented with a Labrador puppy, as a token of the King of King’s affection. Just as he was concluding the dinner, Fisk was almost knocked down by an enthusiastic fully-grown golden Labrador, which burst upon him from the kitchen.

Hiking up to the Assassins’ castle of Alamut

After the Arabs had invaded the Aryan peoples of Persia under the banner of Islam, a new sect of the religion, know as the Ismailis, created strongholds of resistance to the Sunni majority in the high castles of the Alborz Mountains. This region boasts many heroes and stories; the most famous of which is Hassan-i Sabbah, the feared leader of the dreaded Assassins in the 11th Century. The word ‘Assassin’, first brought to Europe by the Crusaders, is a corruption of ‘Hashshashin’ – the infamous garden where Hassan would bring his followers to bend their minds to his will.

Plying them with hashish, he would allow them the pleasures of many women and sweetmeats, persuading them that they were in paradise. Once removed from the garden they would be told that they could only re-enter should they do his bidding, and willingly they were sent to murder Sunni Arab dignitaries, including the then Prime Minister of Persia. So Hassan and his Assassins became the most feared rebels of the age. Hassan’s castle Alamut, or Eagle’s Nest, sits high up upon a strange dreamlike formation of volcanic black rock, which diagonally cuts up into the sky in thick lines of strata. It is a place of foreboding.

Standing upon the foundations of the castle, which cling to the thin summit of the mountain, I surveyed the valley beneath me. To the left a huge expanse of snow and ice rose up in overwhelming proportions. Below, flat metal roofs of smallholdings reflected the silver gold of the sun, which also bounced off from the river, cloud, cedar trees and everything else, hurting my eyes. Somewhere on my right a flag was fluttering. The air was fresh, the horizon long. I could smell ice in my nostrils. ‘Now,’ I heard myself think, ‘this is somewhere.’

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